Shabbat at Camp Tawonga heartfelt, high-energy, holy

If you’ve ever met Camp Tawonga alumni, you will have noticed their almost ecstatic nostalgia, bordering on the cultlike. I went to two Jewish summer camps as a kid, so I thought I understood. But after a restorative Shabbat in the foothills of Yosemite, I can see that this is a truly special place.

Tawonga is unusually beautiful. Wooden buildings dot the area. There is a pool (for swimming), a lake (for boating), and a pristine, frigid fork of the Tuolumne River, featuring gorgeous swimming holes. The camp is ringed by hills, mountains and forest; while you’re at camp, you can see nothing but camp. There is no cell reception — I heard nothing of the interminable presidential election for two whole days.

Shabbat began with a stroll. One staff member led the procession, carrying the camp Torah. Songleaders were right behind her, singing and playing guitars. Like a scene from the Bible, Jews flocked from their encampments as the Torah passed their way, the throng growing as we marched toward the dining hall for dinner.

After dinner, the real fun began. I love Birkat Hamazon at camp, the rhythmic banging on the table on particular words or phrases. I readied myself to bang along, but I was woefully out of my depth. Tawongans have more Birkat Hamazon shtick than I’ve ever seen.

Then came song session, which Tawongans call Freilach, a Yiddish term for joyful music. And joyful it was. Song session at camp is a spectacle to behold, a building-shaking enterprise. Two weeks into a three-week session, everyone knew the words, when to wildly jump up and down, when to dance and what the moves are. The energy was frenetic.

The repertoire was heavy on Jewish camp classics like “Betzelem Elohim,” “Kol Ha’olam Kulo” and, of course, “Miriam’s Song,” (though I was shocked — shocked! — to discover that they “woo!” periodically instead of the double clap to which I am accustomed).

Each unit of camp held its own Kabbalat Shabbat service. Several staff and fellow visitors recommended I go with Chalutzim, the rising ninth and 10th graders who are the oldest campers. Teenagers are an emotional bunch, and something about summer camp heightens their emotions further. This also happened to be the final Friday night of the session — for many in Chalutzim, their final Shabbat as campers. Cue the waterworks.

The services at Tawonga are abbreviated. The Friday night siddur consists of two front-and-back pages. On the cover is a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Shabbat is a great palace in time.” In between each song or prayer, campers get up to share heartfelt expressions of their love for camp, community and each other. One girl noted that she would literally not be alive if it weren’t for camp; her parents met at Tawonga. Where else in life can you see young teenagers express themselves so earnestly, openly emotional, in front of their peers?

Tawongans express their ecstasy during Friday night song session. photos/david a.m. wilensky

As it turns out, I’m still susceptible to tearing up a little at camp — even with just six hours of Tawonga memories so far.

Lecha Dodi was done to a tune I know from the Folkways album of music from the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda. At Tawonga, it is blended into a separate song, also on that album, with English lyrics: “We are happy / We are happy on this day.” When the song ended, I could faintly hear in the distance another unit singing the melody. The sounds of the Sabbath echo through these hills.

In an interesting inversion, the somewhat somber Friday night service was followed the next morning by services that were light and playful.

Jewish summer camps typically have a beautiful outdoor sanctuary. Tawonga’s Makom Shalom might be the most breathtaking I’ve seen, with benches arrayed up a slope looking down on the bimah. Beyond this wide wooden deck is a drop, then a solid curtain of soaring trees. Rather than sit on the benches, a number of kids perched on a large, rounded rock that bulges up into the space. Things looked precarious when we rose for the Barchu, but the 20-kid balancing act acquitted itself well.

Like the previous night’s service, this one was abridged. “Tefilat Makom Shalom,” which serves as the Shabbat morning siddur, is five front-and-back pages stapled in the corner.

The whole service was folksy, with many Hebrew-and-English sing-songy pieces I’d never heard — and a few of my old camp favorites. For Mi Chamochah (“who is like You?”) there was a new-to-me song: “For the miracle of … we say Mi Chamochah.” The blank was filled in each time with shouted suggestions from campers. “For the miracle of sweatpants” got the biggest response from the crowd.

Associate director Aaron Mandel kicks off Shabbat morning services at Camp Tawonga.

The Amidah consisted only of “Adonai sefatai tiftach ufi yagid tehilatecha,” and a selection of “Meditative Readings for Personal Prayer Time” that included pieces by the likes of Martin Buber, Nachman of Bratslav and Anonymous.

Instead of simply imploring God to bring peace to “kol Yisrael / all of Israel” at the end of Kaddish, it has become common in progressive communities to say “kol Yisrael ve’al kol yoshvei teivel / all of Israel and all who dwell on Earth.” At Tawonga, I discovered a fun little liturgical innovation: They say “kol Yisrael ve’al kol benei Adam / all of Israel and all humanity (literally, children of Adam).”

To their credit, Tawongans put the emphasis in this service on the Torah reading. The liturgy became noticeably more traditional at this point, a sign of the community’s kavod laTorah (respect for the Torah). Rabbi Mychal Copeland, who writes a Torah column in J., told a charming Hasidic folktale. Campers did the actual reading.

Following the reading, there was a genuinely funny and insightful skit from a group of costumed staff called the Parshah Players. The Torah portion they enacted, one of my favorites, was Balak, with its tale of the foreign prophet Balaam and his talking donkey. When Balaam, a young woman in a shiny blue coat and glittery gold top hat, asked her donkey, a guy in a furry blue coat, why he was talking, his response was that the Torah is full of weird details that we have to figure out ourselves.

I was later invited to tag along with drama specialist Jake to his Shabbat afternoon elective for kids who’d rather discuss Torah than swim or whatever; clearly these were my people, so I was glad to join.

At one point, Jake asked the kids if there were any elements of Judaism that they would change. Kashrut was first on the chopping block, and we had a fruitful discussion of Jewish food ethics. One girl noted that to participate fully in the Sabbath, she’d have to skip out on her beloved softball games. After a while, something unexpected and heartening happened: The campers stopped talking about how Shabbat gets in the way of participating in American culture, and started talking about how American culture gets in the way of participating in Shabbat. They lamented that school schedules don’t take Jewish holidays into account. I commiserated, telling them that my college graduation took place on a Saturday morning.

These kids had a real hunger for Torah. Tawonga would be well advised to offer more for the kids who yearn for it.

Case in point: Talia, a camper from the Torah elective who was always bouncing up and down in excitement about everything all the time, stopped me later to introduce me to her bunkmates. They grilled me for several minutes on why Jews don’t eat pork.

Havdalah took place after the camp talent show, which was about as hilarious, cringe-worthy and inspiring as any camp talent show I’ve seen. Havdalah is always great at summer camp. This one was a little more low-key than the ones I remember, but the important elements were there, the Debbie Friedman yai-lai-lais not least among them.

And then Shabbat was over. During the elective, we had talked briefly about the Torah’s vision of holiness as separateness. Sunday, on the drive back to San Francisco, I reflected on that and on the separateness of camp.

Shabbat is said to be a vision of the world to come, and nowhere is that more true than at Jewish summer camps like Tawonga. I was terrified to turn my phone back on. When I did, I discovered that the horrors of our world were still very real. I wondered: Is camp a holy vision of the world to come? Or is it just escapism? It’s a fine line. And what’s the difference anyway?

Jew in the Pew
is a regular feature. Send tips about religious, ritual and spiritual goings-on to

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at